Payola gets a song on the radio. If it becomes a hit, radio works it to death. In this day of consolidated radio ownership and programming, my friend suggests, eliminating payola could mean that commercial stations would become even more monotonous, if that can be imagined.
To my mind, however, the difficulty of picturing a world beyond payola is reason enough to cheer Eliot Spitzer along. Payola restricts access to the public airways; only artists whose labels are willing and able to pay get played. Listeners who might enjoy something else won’t hear it from stations on the take. And when fans go to the record store, they’ll find that payola has driven up the price of CD’s.
By the end of our three-album run with MCA, Semisonic had sold close to two million records, but we were a long way from recouping the costs of radio promotion. Thus musicians, even some who have benefited from payola, will applaud Mr. Spitzer, even as they wonder what chance he has of bringing about vast structural reform. Knowing what it takes to get their songs on the radio and watching their share of record sales swallowed up along the way, most recording artists would love to see the current system brought down, even if they can’t imagine what would replace it.
Music professionals have always agreed that hits cannot be bought. To this day, when a label backs the wrong song, it loses money. Moreover, systems of “bribery” analogous to payola operate in many retail markets. Most supermarket chains, for example, make a chunk of their revenue from “slotting fees,” which are the rents that food distributors pay them for shelf space. That such rents are paid says nothing about the flavor or nutritional value of any given item on the shelves. Where music is concerned, however, the concept of payola somehow seems intuitively revolting.
Yet, like it not, every popular song you’ve ever loved has reached you via some chain of pay-for-play machinations. The technological landscape has changed over time, as have the laws supposedly governing music promotion, but payola has been as constant and pervasive a force as gravity for more than a century now. A rational set of regulations would probably acknowledge this reality and aim at leveling the playing field so that small players can compete against big ones, just as they used to do in the early heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, when tiny labels like Sun briefly had the likes of RCA on the ropes.
Mr. Spitzer is doing his duty by enforcing the existing laws. But he might want to at least acknowledge that earlier attempts to kill payola, when they had any effect at all, have tended to leave the beast stronger.